The IDF is unleashing its full power on Hamas — and it may be working

In a vivid dispatch from Gaza, our reporter is taken on a tour by the IDF and discovers a deserted landscape - and far less resistance from the terrorists than had been expected

November 09, 2023 12:49

A limited time spent on a battlefield can only be experienced in snapshots. Snatched glimpses from inside an armoured vehicle of small towns flattened almost entirely on the way in.

The flash of a rocket salvo overhead, fired from nearby and aimed at Ashdod, the Israeli city 20 miles up the coast. A soldier on a half-wrecked veranda overlooking the Mediterranean trying to learn the weekly Torah portion in a rare lull.

A battalion commander scanning the windows of the buildings still standing near a command post for snipers while his soldiers are eating their combat rations.

Then, ordering the snapshots into a narrative that is the IDF fighting the most intense urban warfare campaign in its history since it entered Beirut in the first Lebanon war 41 years ago.

There’s a reason that in the previous ground offensives Israel fought against Hamas in 2009 and 2014 it never went so deep into Gaza City as it is now.

Such a campaign would have called for many more tanks and more firepower over a much wider area. It would have caused many more deaths of Palestinians.

“We never got the order to destroy Hamas’s capabilities in Gaza or topple it from power,” said one tank officer, inside Gaza. “In the past we were trying to either destroy the tunnels or the rocket launchers. We failed at both.”

For the first time the IDF is unleashing its full power in the shape of hundreds of Merkava tanks and Namer and Eitan fighting vehicles, which are basically tanks without cannon turrets inside. The spaces where shells would normally be stored are used to transport infantrymen.

In terms of ground occupied and points on the map that have been reached, the officers are satisfied with their progress. In some places they’ve even reached their objectives earlier than planned.

In terms of actually destroying Hamas military infrastructure, they’re less certain. Hamas is making itself felt, in anti-tank missile ambushes, explosive devices on the convoy routes and mortars trying to hit the temporary overnight positions.

But as the IDF has advanced deeper into the city, the level of Hamas attacks has been much lower than expected.

This can be partly explained by the surprise among Hamas commanders that the IDF has indeed gone in all the way, and partly by their strategy of using the tunnel networks to wait things out before the inevitable ceasefire.

Among the soldiers on the ground in Gaza there is a mixture of relief that casualties haven’t been higher and frustration at the job still awaiting them.

Afternoon guest
The term “embed” came into the journalistic jargon more than 20 years ago with the 9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq when journalists were embedded in American and British units, travelling and living with them for long weeks of warfare, long enough in some cases to write entire books on the experience.

Embedding with the IDF, which doesn’t fly to other continents but fights its wars on Israel’s borders, is a very different matter that is usually over in a few hours. Not so much embed as guest for an afternoon.

It gives you the opportunity to experience within one short reporting trip different layers of the conflict — moving rapidly between an environment where everyone is talking about how the war is being seen by different international audiences to a much more isolated group of men and women who were called up on October 7 from Simchat Torah leave (in the case of conscripts and professional officers) or civilian life and have spent the last month largely detached from any media discourse, Israeli or international.

One of the questions that most surprised soldiers I interviewed inside Gaza was: did they see any civilians? Most of them didn’t and those that did saw only tiny handfuls.

Soldiers operating tanks or heavy armoured fighting vehicles and massive amounts of firepower in a war zone are surprised that any non-combatant would remain within range.

This will come to a surprise to anyone who has been watching events in Gaza through an international media lens and is used to the scenes of masses of refugees sheltering around the hospitals and UNRWA compounds. Like anything else on television, it depends on where the camera is pointed. But it’s also about the numbers we’ve been reporting.

One number that has been mentioned quite a bit over the past couple of weeks is that of the number of civilians still remaining in Gaza. Both Israeli and Palestinian sources have been speaking about something around two-thirds of the million-plus people in Gaza and the surrounding towns who have fled south. That still leaves at least 300,000 people inside.

But as the armoured columns kept driving through empty suburbs and neighbourhoods, some intelligence officers have begun to question those assessments.

It isn’t just a question of journalistic accuracy. As the encirclement of Gaza’s city centre grows tighter, the number of civilians actually there will influence both the military planning and the international calls for a ceasefire.

The day after
And while the fighting on the ground enters what may be its most intensive stage, the contours of the difficult political debate on the day after are emerging.

More and more Israeli politicians on the right are speaking out loud of the possibility, even the necessity, of rebuilding the settlements in Gaza, dismantled in the disengagement of 2005.

Some of the soldiers who reached the ruins of the Netzarim settlement even took a picture with a sign saying “Gusk Katif — We are back!”

One of the commanders on the ground who heard about this shook his head in disbelief:

“I’m here fighting so that my four-year-old son won’t have to come back to Gaza.” Then he complained about soldiers disobeying operational-security orders against taking smartphones and cameras to the battlefield.

Israel is experiencing a rare moment of unity over the necessity of fighting Hamas to the bitter end, but the political differences are never far away.

For those who still hope that Israel will be able, once the fighting is over, to leave the Gaza Strip and hand it over to a peacekeeping force, which will prepare the way for the return of the Palestinian Authority ejected by Hamas in its coup of 2007, there was at least a glimmer of hope.

This came in the coordination with the United Arab Emirates on setting up a field hospital in the southern part of the Gaza Strip and the Jordanian air force parachuting supplies into Gaza City.

For a peacekeeping force to take shape, Israel will need the Arab states with which it has diplomatic relations to pitch in.

In a tweet, Jordanian King Abdullah praised his country’s “fearless” air force for carrying its mission.

One Israeli official laughed that it was indeed “fearless” of them to fly through Israeli airspace with full permission and drop some pallets from 20,000 feet, but if that was what the king needed to keep up appearances, he was welcome to it.

Israel will be needing him and the other Arab rulers to assume more responsibility in the coming months.

For all the latest from Israel, click here to see all our coverage.

To sign up to our daily war briefing, click here. 

To listen to our new Israel podcast, click here.

November 09, 2023 12:49

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive